Barack Obama arrived in Oslo yesterday to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The granting of this prestigious prize to the US president was controversial for a number of reasons. Some complained that it was too soon for the prize to be awarded to Obama as he had only just taken up office and he was yet to achieve any of his foreign policy aspirations. Others criticised the granting of a peace prize to the Commander in Chief of the worlds only military superpower which is currently engaged in two overseas conflicts. This latter point was directly addressed by Obama in his acceptance speech in Oslo yesterday. The speech includes many moments of rhetorical flourish, typical of Obama, culminating in a call for “faith in human progress [to] always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.” However, there are also several points in the speech which are of particular interest for international lawyers.
Central to his speech, Obama directly addresses the legality and legitimacy of the use of force in the twenty-first century. He opines that the “old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats” and he suggests that we must “think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.” It is perhaps unfortunate that the speech is phrased in terms of “just war” but clearly what he is saying has implications for scope of exceptions to the prohibition on the use of force in international law.
More specifically, Obama goes on to defend some notion of humanitarian intervention in international law:
“I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.”
Obama also addresses the idea of the rule of international law in relation to the use of force, but also with wider ramifications:
“I believe that all nations strong and weak alike must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I like any head of state reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t. … Furthermore, America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention no matter how justified.”
He finishes by calling for the strengthening of international institutions and a system of multilateral sanctions that are effective in encouraging states to comply with international law. Emphasis is also laid on promoting human rights and sustainable development as essential means of achieving lasting peace.
Overall, the speech is an interesting insight into the attitudes of the current US administration towards international law.